International College Students: Challenges and Solutions

Two international students working on a project

By and

Posted in: Young Adults

Topics: College Mental Health, Culture + Society

This post is one of a four-part series on college student mental health. The other posts in this series are: 


College campuses are an ideal place to learn from others. While we can read about different cultures, there is no better way to truly understand the rich diversity of cultures and ethnicities than living and studying together. This is often an important part of a college education, but usually not discussed. The learning is personal and interactive.

However, being an international student is not always easy.

International students can experience challenges in a number of areas, including language barriers, academics, social and cultural differences, discrimination, financial stressors, and mental health concerns. These are not easy problems to overcome, and there is so much we all can do to help. Let’s look closer at these challenges, one at a time, and then consider ways the entire community can help tackle them.

Challenges for International College Students

Language Barriers

  • Engaging in Conversations. Many international students have studied English in their native countries but may be less familiar with the use of slang and the fast pace at which their peers and professors speak. For example, the use of prepositions to create compound verbs is particularly challenging (e.g. turn in, turn up, turn down, turn away). These can make both understanding and speaking in conversations difficult.
  • Reluctance to Ask for Clarification. Many international students will not ask others to explain what they mean, out of fear of offending them or increasing their own insecurity. Their lack of understanding may be viewed negatively by peers or professors. And if they sense a negative response, many are even more reluctant to ask for explanations. The end result is that their self-esteem may be lowered.

Academic Challenges

  • Written Assignments. International students may be unfamiliar with doing research and academic writing, or with the format of assignments at a U.S. university. Many countries value memorization of a common fact base over the personalized interpretation of material favored by U.S. higher education institutions.
  • Classroom Difficulties. The emphasis placed on classroom discussions will disadvantage international students whose speaking of English is not fully spontaneous. The discussion format in which various points of view are debated is at odds with formats used in other countries where “correct answers” are expected. In many cultures, it would be considered disrespectful to counter or debate a professor’s opinion, whereas in the U.S., students who are able to debate well are valued with top marks. In other countries, grading is weighted heavily towards final exams, as opposed to the emphasis placed on classroom participation and utilization of office hours. Students seeking out professors or teaching assistants are typically graded higher, whereas in some cultures, the norm is to respect the higher status of faculty as off-limits, and this would keep students from approaching them in more informal contexts. Some students may also have trouble taking notes or giving oral presentations.

Social and Cultural Differences

  • Social Isolation. International students miss home, like all students, but are usually only able to return twice a year as opposed to the more frequent visits that are typical, especially for freshman. In addition, time zone differences make calling home at convenient times more challenging. Students come with fewer possessions (limited to two suitcases, as opposed to a car-full), meaning their spaces are less personalized. They are naturally outsiders, sharing fewer common activities with their roommates, such as sports teams or extracurricular activities. In addition, their own holidays are not always acknowledged in the U.S. system, and they may not have any traditions or attachments to the holidays that are observed here. They will naturally gravitate to others from their own cultures, but those groups are usually small, further isolating them from fully integrating with their roommates or classmates. International students, so far from their own families, friends, language and social and cultural norms, may avoid social situations.
  • Culture Shock. Many students are not prepared for the culture on American college campuses, such as co-ed dorms, informal relationships with “authority figures” such as professors or college leaders, and differences in food and alcohol in social settings and community events. The openness around sexuality, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity, can be uncomfortable if from cultures where these behaviors and identities are tabued. The manner in which Americans eat while not seated at meals is also considered rude in many other cultures.


  • Racial and Ethnic Prejudice. International students can be perceived as outsiders and feel marginalized in class and social settings. Those lacking complete fluency in English or those with more obvious accents are often treated as if they are intellectually challenged. There is prejudice against markings or headdresses identifying membership in religious or ethnic groupings.
  • Stereotyping. International students are often misunderstood and subject to false assumptions about their native culture. The American high school education system does not normally expose students to a real-life understanding of cultures in other countries outside of coursework in history or social studies. There are many countries American teens are not familiar with at all, or they may be aware of only historical stereotypes. In addition, there are many complexities within ethnic minorities and persecuted groups, as well as cross-border tensions between countries, that are not presented to students. It would be a great addition to our secondary and college educational curricula if students from other countries and cultures could talk about their native traditions, holidays, religions, foods, clothing, and family relationships. Sharing personal narratives is probably the best way for our students to appreciate and respect cultural differences through conversations with their peers.

Financial Difficulties

  • Getting Loans and Jobs. It is difficult to get student loans or a U.S. credit card without a U.S. Social Security number or a credit history. Additionally, international students’ visas do not allow them to have jobs unless they are co-sponsored by their college or university.
  • Pressure to Achieve. Because of the high costs of tuition and room and board, many international students feel extra pressure to excel academically. They may feel obliged to their families to limit their majors to those considered practical or lucrative, and may not be encouraged to explore the full range of possible careers.

Psychological Difficulties

  • Emotional Difficulties. One of the most profound problems for international students is homesickness. This is compounded by academic, social, cultural, and financial pressures – all potentially resulting in excessive stress, anxiety, and depression. There is often a conflict between their emotional struggles and the expectation that they should feel privileged and lucky to have the opportunity to study abroad.
  • Failure to Access Mental Health Services. Though at increased risk for psychological problems, many international students do not seek mental health services. This is often due to stigma, as mental health concerns can be incongruent with their cultural norms and expectations. In addition, students may be unaware of mental health services provided on campus or not feel comfortable discussing their emotions or “complaining.”

What Can You Do As An International Student?

  • Access College Resources. There are many resources that can help international students navigate the academic system, like writing and learning centers. Advisors can guide students to mental health programs, service-learning, and work-study. International student organizations can also assist in acclimating to college culture.
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  • Talk With Other International Students. Sharing experiences, working through issues, and discussing solutions with other international students can be helpful and cathartic. In addition, larger cities often have formal or informal groups for visitors and residents from a particular country, allowing gatherings with compatriots.
  • Use Host Families. Many universities have host families sorted by countries of origin, or alumni from those countries can be identified and serve as informal mentors.
  • Seek Family Support. Most international students report that emotional support from their families at home is most helpful. There are also opportunities for support from family members living in the U.S. and from homestay families.

What Can Allies Can Do?

  • Welcome Diversity. Confront your own assumptions about people from different cultures. Try to appreciate their backgrounds with curiosity and acceptance.
  • Advocate for Safe Spaces. International students need places on campuses to freely discuss their concerns and experiences of discrimination, and to seek support from others in similar situations.
  • Treat all people with respect. Be open to learning from students about their diverse backgrounds, and don’t judge others based on their different experiences.
  • Advocate for campus-wide cultural competency and sensitivity training. This should include Mental Health First Aid training programs. These programs benefit faculty, staff, and students, alike.

All students benefit from a campus that is welcoming to international students. It is a mutual responsibility to help foster inclusion and make campuses a place where everyone feels accepted.

And above all, getting to know individuals from other parts of the world is enriching and fun.

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Mireya Nadal-Vicens, M.D., Ph.D.

Mireya Nadal-Vicens, M.D., Ph.D.

Mireya Nadal-Vicens, M.D., Ph.D. conducts research in the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School....

To read full bio click here.

Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.